Sociopaths dazzle and distract with brilliant linguistic gymnastics to obscure their lies. In my book, Husband, Liar, Sociopath: How He Lied, Why I Fell For It & The Painful Lessons Learned (available via Amazon.com), I examine several conversations to reveal specific techniques “Paul” (my husband of about 20 years who I now believe is a sociopath), used to obscure the truth. These techniques are likely common to other liars and sociopaths as well.
“Our Honeymoon Isn’t Over Until I Say It’s Over!”
The night we’d returned from our honeymoon, I needed to make a business-related call. Paul was furious with me and snapped, “Our honeymoon isn’t over until I say it’s over!” It was so out of character for the man I thought I married that I decided to discuss the unsettling interaction with Paul the next day.
I started by telling Paul that I’d been upset and repeated his comment, “Our honeymoon isn’t over until I say it’s over!”
With a look of surprise concern on his face, Paul replied, “I’d never say something like that.”
Those six words comprised three techniques that are effective at creating misperceptions:
1) framing the conversation to blind me to what was in clear view,
2) creating cognitive dissonance that I would likely resolve in his favor, and
3) deceiving without uttering a single word that was untrue.
Framing The Conversation To His Advantage
By starting with “I’d never … ” Paul encouraged me to frame my recollection of his behavior in the context of who I believed Paul to be—a good, loving, honest, and honorable man. The fact that he made a point of presenting himself as so moral while we were dating, and I believed and loved that about him, provided a smokescreen of perceived honestly to conceal his dishonesty.
Of course, as I had just married him, I had a vested interest in believing in his inherent goodness.
Before you judge me as naïve or stupid, keep in mind that we all perceive the world through a lens forged from our interpretation of past events and present expectations. It is almost impossible for us to see what we are not looking for, even when it is right in front of us.
We’re Blind To What We’re Not Looking For
A comical experiment that became the inspiration for the book The Invisible Gorilla: And Other Ways Our Intuitions Deceive Us demonstrates our blindness to what we are not expecting. The study involved two teams with three players each, two basketballs, and one gorilla (actually, a person in a gorilla suit).
Subjects were asked to view a short video of the two teams passing a basketball back and forth. The task was to count the number of times the team wearing white passed the ball. In the middle of the short game, a person in a gorilla suit walked to the center of the scene, stopped, faced the camera, pounded its chest several times, and then left.
When the video concluded, viewers were asked how many times the white team had passed the ball and next were asked if they noticed anything unusual about the game. Believe it or not, lots of people did not even notice the gorilla. Even when asked if they saw a gorilla, most of those who had not previously noticed the gorilla laughed, because the idea of a gorilla being part of the video was preposterous.
This study and its findings have been repeated consistently—we tend not to see what we are not expecting to see, even when looking straight at it.
After all, the task was framed as counting passes among players with white shirts, not finding a big, out-of-place, faux, hairy primate. Similarly, as Paul’s new bride, without even knowing that I was doing it, I was framing each interaction by looking for confirming evidence that I had selected a wonderful spouse. I certainly was not looking for signs that Paul was a lying, manipulative sociopath.
Cognitive Dissonance: Character Versus Behavior
Still, Paul’s comment that he alone determined when the honeymoon was over did not fit my “Paul is a wonderful person” framework. So, like any other human being, I was motivated to make a mental adjustment so that my perception of Paul’s behavior and my understanding of Paul’s character were in harmony once again.
In other words, I had to resolve the dissonance between his statement that “I’d never …” and the fact that I thought he’d just done something he said he would never do. To this end, it was easier for me to shift my perception of what I thought Paul said the previous night to fit the assumption that my new husband was a wonderful man than to hold onto my initial, albeit correct, memory of the tense exchange. (Although traumatic memory is quite stable, every-day memory is no more stable than shifting sand.)
To hold onto that correct memory would have required me, within days of our wedding, to have drastically deflated my assessment of Paul and to have concluded I had just made a horrible mistake by marrying him. Tall order!
Using The Truth To Lie
Paul also lied to me without technically uttering any words that were untrue.
Think about what Paul said and what he did not say. Paul never said, “I did not say that.” If he had, that would have been a lie. Perhaps because it made the game of deception more engaging, Paul preferred an orchestrated misperception to an outright untruth, although he was comfortable with downright lies when necessary.
What did Paul say? Simply that he “…would never say something like that.” That is not the same thing. In fact, if at the very moment he spoke that sentence Paul did not intend to say something like that, his statement would have been technically true.
Lying Is A Game To A Sociopath
I believe deception is a game to Paul and to fellow sociopaths. Paul loved to cobble words together to create an impression that was 180 degrees opposite of the truth. Then if his “deception” was ever detected, he could argue that you had misunderstood and misperceived, as everything he’d said was true. It took me until my divorce from Paul to understand this technique, but once I understood it, I became aware of the frightening frequency with which Paul wielded it. Other sociopaths do this as well.
Once in our divorce, for example, a judge asked Paul what an account under dispute was worth. (All the following values are fictitious.) Paul reported that the account had been worth $2,000 a year ago and had grown by $100 as of the day he’d prepared the paperwork for court (the implication was that the account was now worth $2,100). I knew something was amiss. And, I was right. Why not just say, the account is currently worth $2,100?
What Paul left out was that the day after he found out the account had grown to $2,100, Paul liquidated a substantial amount of the account, bringing its value to about $800. But notice, every word he spoke or wrote in legal documents was technically “true.” The judge awarded me the account that she thought was worth $2,100.
But since Paul had gutted the account, I now needed to spend additional legal fees to recoup the money I was owed. Paul even argued that he only owed me $800, as the judge had awarded me the account, without specifying the amount of money that had to be in it.
Are you kidding me! Nope. That’s how many sociopaths operate.
Hurting Others Is A “Win” To A Sociopath
To Paul, it was a victory. Think about it. If I had to spend an additional $1,300 in legal fees to get the $2,100 I was awarded, then the “net” value of me getting the account would be only $800. (As legal fees can add up fast, this is quite possible.) So by lying with the truth, Paul had put me in a situation in which he’d have $1,300 of assets that were technically mine, and the correct decision on strictly economic terms would be for me to walk away with an account that was now only worth $800.
(Identifying names, places, events and characteristics of “Paul”—not his real name–and others I discuss here and in my book have been altered to protect their and my identity.)